The name of the annual Women Rocking Hollywood panel used to feel more hope than reality, with dismal statistics that barely showed any progress year after year. That has changed now, thanks to #MeToo and Ava DuVernay. The combination of systemic initiatives from groups like ReFrame, with mentoring programs and goals for gender equity and the commitment of Ava DuVernay to giving women directors their first television credit in “Queen Sugar” has made a dramatic difference. Directors on the panel described their own projects, most of which were awarded the ReFrame seal for giving women more opportunities.
Gina Prince-Bythewood loved making “The Old Guard” because it “normalizes the fact that women are courageous and bad-ass and you don’t need a traumatic experience to fuel this change in you. We just are.” She and Nisha Ganatra (“Late Night,” “The High Note“) both said they were drawn to their films because they had two strong female leads, with one of color.
Lauren Wolkstein, in what has become a Women Rocking Hollywood tradition, thanked Ava DuVernay. Her commitment to using women who have not directed for television before on “Queen Sugar” has created an entire generation of directors who have had a chance to prove themselves. And each of them takes what they learned from DuVernay to their new projects. “It is such a nurturing environment, like a family reunion. I try to bring what I learned on ‘Queen Sugar’ to every set. Everyone respects everyone on the level of collaborator.” That includes, “giving people an opportunity they otherwise would not have had.”
Ganatra also talked about her commitment to making opportunities for top crew positions available to women on her projects. On “The High Note,” she said “We went out of our way to get the best person to do the job and not just the person who had been doing the job. I found a whole bunch of women who had tons of experience and bumped them all up.” It was important to her that the film have two female leads, one of color, both ambitious, dedicated to their careers and not apologetic about it. They did not have to stumble or be klutzy in another area of their life. They were just being held back by the system.” She wanted the film to address “the myth that there’s only room for one woman at the table. What are women asked to give up in order to succeed and what kind of price do they pay for that?” But she assured the audience that, “I should also mention that the movie’s really funny. It’s really important to me to take on those issues and hide them in comedy. The joy of comedy is that it’s kind of a Trojan horse to get people to see movies that raise issues they might not otherwise think about.”
Zetna Fuentes said that “Frank Miller was my biggest champion from the very beginning” in the recasting of the Arthurian legend “Cursed” series. “I really wanted to be involved in world-building, all of the choices you have to make, what it feels like, what’s the tone. We wanted it to have heart and action, and it’s a coming-of-age story. You have to think about every detail, what does her home look like, her village, the red of the villain’s cloak. Working with actors is my favorite part of the process and I take it so seriously and I agonize and think about the qualities they need to inhabit this role, which is so layered. In a fantasy world where a lot of times you don’t see people of color, how exciting that you can do that in our series. We can really push for the best actor. We want to tell great stories, excellent stories, any story we feel a connection to that resonates with us. For me to have a King Arthur legend, the story we all know, and take the Lady of the Lake and have her be a hero and tell her story, that is an amazing opportunity. It is the best of both worlds, not a compromise in any way.”
Moderator/Women Rocking Hollywood founder Leslie Combemale always includes an update from ReFrame, and this year the group’s director, Alison Emilio, had very encouraging news. ReFrame does more than track the gender equality in film productions; it awards a seal to those that meet the criteria, displayed in the closing credits. More than 100 films have earned the stamp, and the proof of its reach was on the panel with her. Fuentes was a ReFrame fellow and Ganatra is a ReFrame ambassador. Everyone on the panel has earned a stamp. They have promising partnerships with Hulu, which is featuring stamped content, and with Delta Airlines, which has a special in-air entertainment channel just for those films. ReFrame’s next goal is to make progress with bigger budget/bigger box office productions. Too often, “when the money comes in, women fall out. We want to see more of this content living on the top 100 shows. We’ve seen a steady progression from 12 shows in 2017 to 26 in 2019 with the stamp.”